HL Deb 17 March 1909 vol 1 cc465-9

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Churchill.)


rose to move that the Bill be read a second time this day six months. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to oppose this Bill for the purpose of drawing attention to the increased powers which railway companies are seeking to own steamers. It seems to me that the length railway companies are now going in the direction of steamboat-owning has reached a point when it is a matter of public policy to consider whether the line should not be now laid down and they should not be allowed to go any further.

Certain Scottish railway companies have powers to own steamers, and, in consequence, have practically run all private steamboat enterprise off the Clyde. Only the other day one of the Clyde companies had to go into liquidation as a result. Having done this and lost their shareholders' money in doing so, the railway companies have now entered into a combination among themselves and are withdrawing a certain number of their steamers and arranging to pool the receipts and raise the fares; and this, I maintain, is to the disadvantage of the public. Railway companies, of necessity, have a monopoly more or less on land. That monopoly is now spreading, and railway companies are also obtaining a monopoly of the Channel and coasting trade to a very great extent. Yet I make bold to say that there is not a single steamer owned by a railway company which is run at a profit. I must admit that I am unable to prove that by figures, because the accounts of railway companies are so made up as to render that impossible; but I do not think anyone connected with a railway company will contradict my statement.

It is exceedingly hard that bonâ fide shipowners who run steamers for their livelihood should be subjected to such competition as is now met with from railway companies. The companies, of course, maintain that, although the steamers make a loss, there is a profit to them on the through journey. I do not think that is fair competition, and, as things are going just now, I do not know where it will stop. Under Clause 4 of this Bill the railway companies seek an extension of the steamboat powers they already possess. I object to this clause altogether. I object to the indefinite powers sought under the clause to run steamers to all ports on the coast of France between St. Malo and Nantes. Under the Merchant Shipping Act the coasting trade is confined to ports between Brest and Hamburg. In this Bill the Company are seeking powers to run steamers to ports in the Bay of Biscay. If they are given power to run to the Bay of Biscay, why should they not run to the Cape and to New York? I do not know where it will end. Under that clause also the railway company could enter the British coasting trade between the British ports named in the clause, but I understand that it is not the intention of the company to do so.

Under Clause 5 the railway company may subscribe to the funds of any steamship company running traffic between the ports named in the Bill. The power sought is a very wide one indeed, and the railway company, if they do not run their own steamers, merely have to run another company's, and would be entitled to subscribe money to that company for running steamers between the authorised ports, and, having subscribed to that company, there is nothing to prevent these steamers running to any other ports. In fact, it would only be a separate company in name; and under that clause there is no condition that the steamers should sail under the British flag.

I know I shall be told that other railway companies possess similar powers. I admit that; but I have felt bound to draw attention to this matter because the shipping trade is getting alarmed at the increased powers which railway companies are procuring in this direction. If your Lordships decide to give this Bill a Second Reading, I shall make this appeal to the noble Lord who represents the Board of Trade, that in the public interest they will protect us when the Bill goes before Committee. Shipowners have not a sufficient margin of profit to go to the heavy expense of fighting these Bills before Committees upstairs, and I think this is a case where the Board of Trade ought to look after our interests.

Amendment moved—

"To leave out the word 'now' and to add at the end of the Motion the words 'this day six months.'"—(Lord Inverclyde.)

My Lords, the noble Lord said he believed he would be answered by the statement that other companies had the same powers as we are seeking to obtain under this Bill. That, I think, is a very effective reply to any objection that can be taken to the Second Reading of this Bill. Under the Bill we seek for no further powers than are already possessed by other companies. This Bill, in fact, is framed on the last precedent passed by Parliament—namely, the North Eastern Railway Bill of 1905, which contains exactly similar provisions to those in Clauses 4 and 5—the clauses to which, I understand, the noble Lord objects; the only difference is that the powers described are confined to vessels registered in a British port. The Great Western Railway Company have already drawn up an Amendment dealing with this subject. The powers sought under this Bill are infinitely more limited than those granted to other companies in recent years, and I really do not know that it is necessary, for the purpose of asking your Lordships to read the Bill a second time, that I should detain the House by going into the details of those powers. The noble Lord remarked that the coasting trade was limited between Brest and Hamburg. Many of your Lordships know that there are companies possessing powers to run steamers to the whole of the Baltic ports, and also to intermediate places along the coast from Dunkirk. The North Eastern Company, in the Act of 1905, have exactly the same powers as we are seeking for in Clause 5. We are, however, perfectly willing to limit that clause to arrange- ments for working purposes only, and not to subscribe to the capital of other companies—in other words, not to subsidise them. A petition has been lodged by Messrs. Hutchison, who are shipowners, which raises practically all the questions touched upon by the noble Lord with regard to both clauses, which will, of course, be heard and fully discussed before a Committee. I understand, also, that my noble friend who represents the Board of Trade in this House is quite satisfied that the Great Western Railway Company are prepared to meet any of the points which the Department would like slightly amended. Under these circumstances, I hope your Lordships will see fit to give the Bill a Second Reading.


My Lords, on behalf of the Board of Trade I would say that the Department are always very unwilling t o interfere in any way with these questions. This matter has been given a most careful consideration, and the opinion of the Department is that it is one which may quite well be left to the decision of a Committee of your Lordships' House. Therefore, on behalf of the Government I do not oppose the Second Reading.


My Lords, perhaps I ought to say a word. The position of this Bill differs somewhat from that of the Bill which your Lordships were considering last night. The questions raised yesterday by the noble Earl, Lord Donoughmore, were of a general character which could not well be discussed before a Select Committee, because they would not arise out of any of the petitions; but, as the noble Viscount who moved the Second Reading of this Bill has just stated, a petition has been presented against this Bill by certain shipowners in Glasgow, who, in all probability, will be allowed a locus standi. They raise the objections which have been put before the House to-night by the noble Lord who opposed the Second Reading, and, therefore, they will come within the cognisance of the Committee to whom the Bill will be referred. In those circumstances, I could not advise your Lordships to refuse to give the Bill a Second Reading.


My Lords, in view of the assurance which the noble Viscount has given me in regard to Clause 5, I shall not trouble the House to divide. With regard to Clause 4, however, I am sorry that I shall still have to oppose that clause, but that can be done before the Committee.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Then the original Motion agreed to: Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed; the Committee to be proposed by the Committee of Selection.